Jan. 14, 2010 -- The world can breathe a sigh of relief today... kind of.
A group of international scientists this morning announced that they are moving the hands of the symbolic "Doomsday Clock" away from midnight -- or the figurative apocalypse -- but only by one minute.
The clock, which is maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was designed to reflect how close civilization is to "catastrophic destruction." First set at seven minutes to midnight, the clock has been moved only 18 times since its creation in 1947.
The group, which includes more than a dozen Nobel laureates, last moved the hands of the clock in 2007, from seven to five minutes before midnight to reflect the threat of a "second nuclear age" and the challenges presented by global warming.
Today, at a press conference in New York, the Bulletin announced that despite the looming threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, it would move the hands of the clock from five to six minutes before midnight.
Scientists: World Facing 'Hopeful' State of Affairs
"By shifting the hand back from midnight by only one additional minute, we emphasize how much needs to be accomplished, while at the same time recognizing signs of collaboration among the United States, Russia, the European Union, India, China, Brazil, and others on nuclear security and on climate stabilization," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in a statement.
Citing collaborative efforts by world leaders to reduce nuclear arsenals, secure nuclear bomb-making materials and pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the group said the world was facing a "hopeful" state of affairs.
The Bulletin also said that the election of President Barack Obama, along with his efforts to initiate arms reduction talks with Russia and negotiations with Iran to close its nuclear enrichment program, affected its decision.
"We are poised to bend the arc of human history," said Lawrence M. Krauss, co-chair of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors and a professor at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration and its physics department.
Still, Krauss said the Bulletin chose one minute to highlight the precariousness of the current global situation.
"What that means is that there's great potential for it to move in either direction depending on what happens," he said, adding that while there's been a "sea change" in attitude and the expansion of possibilities, there still hasn't been a lot of action.
"That's hopeful enough to move it but just by a little bit," he said.
Public Invited to Watch Announcement at TurnBacktheClock.org
For the first time, the public was invited to take part in the Bulletin's announcement as the group streamed live video of the event online at TurnBacktheClock.org.
Kennette Benedict, the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said that Web site was launched "to allow citizens around the world a means by which to get involved and inspire leaders to take action."
Global Threats Now Include Climate Change and Biological Weapons
Founded by a group of scientists who worked in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist initially created the Doomsday Clock to convey the world's vulnerability to nuclear catastrophe.
But over the years, the clock has come to reflect the threats posed by climate change, nuclear terrorism and biological weapons.
Though the matrix of threats has shifted since the clock's inception, security experts say it still maintains its significance.
"I think that the context has dramatically changed since the end of the Cold War. Everyone lived in a certain level of apprehension. ... The nuclear confrontation was salient and palpable," said Bruce Blair, president of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank World Security Institute. "The clock was a shorthand summary of where we stood."
The prospect of nuclear war with Russia is no longer front and center, he said, but other threats have emerged and deserve attention.
Nuclear stalemates with North Korea and Iran and the recent failure to secure an international accord at the climate conference in Copenhagen are three of the greatest threats facing the world right now, he said.
Science Historian: Clock Is Reminder of Changing Times
Spencer Weart, a science historian and former director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md., said that at this point the clock, in some ways, serves as a reminder of how times have changed.
"The whole end-of-the-world idea, which was so important during the hay day of the Doomsday Clock, has kind of retreated back into the realm of religious apocalypses," he said.
Younger generations, those not politically conscious until the 1990s, see it as the stuff of old movies, he said, and can't relate to the feeling that "at any moment, literally any moment, we might be gone."
Clock Can Bring Urgency to Distant Threats
Though immediate threats to civilization may not be at the top of most people's minds, he said that the clock helps bring a sense of urgency to the threats now facing humanity.
For example, he said, the destruction wrought by climate change will happen gradually, not overnight, but every minute that passes puts us further behind.
"It's an attempt to make us realize that although the threat may be distant the need to do something about is now," he said."